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Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear is the son of a Baptist preacher. / Jennifer Harnish, USA TODAY

Why have casinos and gay marriage had such a tough time in the Kentucky General Assembly?

Baptists.

That's the consensus among the Kentucky Baptist Conference and lawmakers themselves, who say the high number of Baptists in the General Assembly can take the blame or credit for Kentucky's continuing ban on gay marriage and lack of casinos.

Baptists make up 25 percent of the state's 4.4 million population but 40 percent of the General Assembly, according to statistics gathered by the 2010 Religious Census by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, the Kentucky Baptist Convention and Legislative Research Commission.

Almost half the Senate and more than one-third of the House identify as Baptists.

With many Baptists in key leadership positions in the Senate and House ?? including chairing seven committees in both the House and Senate ?? that's had a noticeable impact on what gets passed and what doesn't.

Some of the notable legislation influenced by Baptists includes the General Assembly's ban on gay marriage that passed in 2004, and why the General Assembly can't pass legislation to allow for casinos.

Baptists also led the charge on the "religious freedom" bill in 2013 that stated government couldn't infringe on religious beliefs without "clear and convincing evidence" of the need. Many civil rights groups feared this would lead to discrimination of gay people on religious grounds. Gov. Steve Beshear vetoed the bill, but the General Assembly overrode the veto.

Not all Baptists agree. Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo also is a Baptist but has supported expanded gambling and other issues that may be at odds with other Baptists.

"Not every elected official that claims to be Baptist would take a biblical stand on issues, but we feel a majority do," said Paul Chitwood, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, which represents 2,500 Southern Baptist churches with 750,000 members. "We see favorable outcomes as a result."

The Baptist influence isn't as heavy elsewhere, with Baptists making up 13.7 percent of Congress and 17 percent of the total adult population of the United States, according to the Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project.

Asked by The Cincinnati Enquirer about their top concern, many Baptist ministers didn't hesitate when identifying it as stopping the legalization of same-sex marriage.

"I want to see a stronger stance on preserving marriage between a man and woman" said Russell Noss, pastor of Highland Hills Baptist Church in Fort Thomas, Ky.

A federal judge overturned the gay marriage ban in Kentucky that passed the General Assembly and a statewide vote in 2004, but Beshear, the son of a Baptist preacher, has appealed the ruling.

The arguments against gay marriage from the Baptists start and end with Bible verses. Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Baptist from southeastern Kentucky, quoted Genesis 2:24, which states, "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh."

"God's word is clear this is what is intended," Westerfield said. "It's what scripture says. I would have a hard time compromising on something so concrete and well-defined."

Gay marriage proponents, however, believe the tide has started to shift among conservatives in Kentucky. For the first time, a bill that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation received a hearing in the House. Every year for 15 years it would get ignored in committee. Now, it could pass within five years, said Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, a Louisville-based gay rights group,

As more people come out as gay, Republicans and Democrats become more familiar with the gay community and issues, he said.

"With the modern forms of communication and more and more folks coming out, people have more LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) folks in their lives," Hampton said.

Expanded gambling has also struggled to find traction in the face of significant opposition from Baptist legislators and congressmen.

Horse tracks want the ability to operate casinos to increase purses and compete with surrounding states. The governor has pushed legislation to give the tracks casinos without success.

It has died in the Republican-controlled Senate, despite having the support of Republicans and Democrats in both chambers. Baptist organizations and legislators, in particular, have railed against the evils of gambling.

Lawmakers from urban areas of Northern Kentucky and Louisville, even Baptist ones, have supported gambling.

Democratic state Rep. Arnold Simpson of Covington is a Baptist but supports the constitutional amendment to expand gambling.

"You have to balance these issues and come to terms with them," Simpson said. "In some regions, the influence is such that it crosses over beyond the scope of religion and gets in the sphere of politics."

Despite the diverse support for expanded gambling, lawmakers from rural areas remain staunchly against it. Republican Sen. Sara Beth Gregory, a Baptist from Wayne County along Kentucky's Tennessee border, said opposition to casino gambling hasn't waned among her constituents.

"In my area, it has not really changed," Gregory said. "People are still very conservative minded on their views on essentially the social issues. There's still a strong percentage of folks that are very church-oriented with strong traditional beliefs."

Gambling opponents might outlast gambling supporters.

As casino legislation has stalled, interest among the thoroughbred industry has also started to weaken. Some casino proponents have soured on the experiences by tracks in other states where governments have taken higher portions of the gambling revenue to plug budget holes, said David Switzer, executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association.

'I really think nationally it may have run its course," Switzer said. "What the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. Well, what the Legislature giveth, the Legislature taketh away."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Church-state separation put to the test in Ky.

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